Choose Compassion

by Joanie Butman

Based on responses from last week’s post, I think it’s safe to say I am not the only one who struggles with the term ‘testing’ or the negative emotions it evokes. For example, my Facebook posts usually get anywhere from 30 – 50 views on average. I can always tell when I hit a nerve because that number jumps exponentially, sometimes closing in on 500. Last week’s post came in at 248. Not many by social media standards, but certainly enough to alert me that my post resonated with readers as did the numerous emails I received from mailing list subscribers. Usually when the numbers get that high on Facebook, there are at least a few likes or comments. Only one like on this post and that from one of my most loyal followers. What does this tell me? That we, as a species, are uncomfortable around pain and will do everything in our power to protect ourselves from it.

I referred to the story of Job last week but didn’t discuss a rarely talked about phenomenon highlighted in his saga: namely, his friends blaming him for his troubles – something people do all the time whether they verbalize it or not. Few will admit it and often aren’t even aware of it, as it’s such an instinctive form of self-protection. If we can attribute someone’s pain to a lifestyle choice or anything of their own making, we convince ourselves that as long as we don’t do that, we’re safe. Here’s a perfect example. I was talking to a friend recently and mentioned that one of our town officials got hit by a car in town and was seriously injured. Her first response was, “She was probably crossing in the middle of the street. I hate when people do that.” I was stunned and not because it isn’t something I haven’t done. I suppose I recognized my own tendency to do the same from time to time despite my experience of being on the receiving end.

When I was diagnosed with a rare cancer, people had all kinds of hypotheses of how I contracted it – too many fertility drugs being the most popular. That someone might think it is one thing; that they would actually voice it was unbelievable. However, I realized that admitting the randomness of a cancer diagnosis is just too frightening for most people because that would mean they could be next. Yes, people are uncomfortable with pain and suffering, even if their discomfort manifests itself through a Pollyanna attitude. You know, the person who assures you that you are going to be fine when they have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s a way of reassuring themselves that there’s always a happy ending, which may be the case but certainly not on earth.

Here’s another example. I have a friend with serious eye issues and while recouping from surgery was totally blind. While dining out one evening she was approached by an elderly woman who asked, “What did you do wrong for God to take away your eyesight?” My instinct at that moment would have been to lash out with a caustic, “I hit an old lady for asking stupid questions!” Luckily, my friend is much more mature than me. But really, how do you respond to such an inquiry? Even if we are the authors of our own pain, it doesn’t mean God can’t use it for good. Whatever the case, it doesn’t help anyone in pain to be on the receiving end of such an accusation.

Blame and judgment are not difficult concepts to wrap your head around because we do it to ourselves all the time – especially as parents. When your child derails for any number of reasons, I don’t know about you, but my first reaction is, “What did I do wrong? This wouldn’t have happened if I was more strict, less strict, more available, less hovering, more loving, etc.” You know the drill. Blame is just as damaging, if not more so, when it is self-inflicted because it’s isolating. Let’s face it, having kids is a crapshoot. You do the best you can and hope that even a fraction of what you try to instill takes root; but ultimately, our children are responsible for their own choices and the consequences that come with them. Parenting is a perfect example of people judging your abilities to lull them into a false sense of security that the same won’t befall one of their offspring.

We all have Job periods when you learn who your true friends are – the ones who choose to provide compassion and empathy rather than judgment and condemnation. The ones who, despite their discomfort, will sit with you in your pain because as Brene Brown points out “compassion is not a relationship between healer and wounded but a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” That’s the basis of every support group.

Choosing compassion is simply choosing to suffer with someone – something Christ provides in abundance. Having Him in my corner doesn’t guarantee a win by worldly standards or a life without difficult and painful experiences, but it does mean we will be together regardless. It means He will be carrying me every step of the way providing whatever strength and endurance is needed, much like He did with Job. A test from God is never about passing or failing. It’s about growing. It’s not God causing our pain but adding purpose to our suffering. That knowledge eliminates the fear and anxiety with the concept of testing. When you choose to embrace the test, you will discover the blessings and the growth it provides as well as the compassion it will give you for others in similar circumstances. The following email I received yesterday from a cancer patient says it all:

“…it's helpful to hear of people who have recovered from cancer, and are able to minister to others through their experience. I understand why some people say that cancer has been a blessing in their lives because it has enriched them in ways we could never have imagined.”